Q&A – Chibundu Onuzo, author of ‘Sankofa’

AiW Guest: Zahra Banday 

Sankofa coverAiW note: Following up on her review of Sankofa, “a fresh, funny and moving take on the theme of identity and place… crafted with gentle care but harbouring brutal realities,” Zahra Banday interviews its award-winning author, Chibundu Onuzo

Chibundu grew up in Lagos, the youngest of four children to doctor parents. She is now based in London. Sankofa (2021) — “a funny, gripping and surprising story of a mixed-race British woman who goes in search of the African father she never knew” — is Chibundu’s third novel.

Her first, the celebrated The Spider King’s Daughter (2012), with which she signed her first deal to Faber at just nineteen, is the tale of an unlikely friendship between a male street hawker and a daughter of the corrupt elite that struggles to establish itself amidst the prejudices of Nigerian society; Welcome to Lagos, which followed in 2016, follows two soldiers during the Niger Delta conflict.

Zahra’s conversation with Chibundu discusses writing and process, touching on research, and literary and other inspirations for Sankofa — including Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather and the music video Chibundu shot to promote the novel — Pan-Africanism in post-colonial Africa, and prevailing problematic preferences for questions about politics over the writing craft… 

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Zahra Banday for AiW: What an author chooses to name their novel is always fascinating. The sankofa is the Akan mythical bird that has its feet planted forward and its head looking back. Why did you choose that imagery for the title of your book? 

Chibundu Onuzo: The title came last. I got to the end and discovered what the book was about. The book was originally called something else. When my sister read a draft, we were looking for a title and we didn’t think the original title was strong enough.  

She said why don’t you call it ‘Sankofa’? And I thought yes, it does encapsulate everything the novel is trying to say: before you move forward you need to know what’s in your past, doing both at the same time – moving forward but not forgetting where you come from.

On this note, I love the front cover and I wondered if you had a lot of creative control in choosing and designing it? 

I know what I don’t like but I don’t know what I like. I can’t articulate what I like until I see it. It might be frustrating working with me on design! 

I think the first cover they sent, I didn’t like. I remember sending options, different covers that I did like, and the only thing they had in common was that they were all different and they had nothing to do with each other! 

If I see something I like, I can say I like it, but if someone just says “what would you like on the cover of Sankofa?”, I don’t know! I definitely like the final product and think they did a great job. 

Sankofa-Nicole-Book-Design-Real

For more on the evolution of the cover, designed by Nicole Caputo, see Electric Lit.

The mixed identity experience is acutely observed and written in the novel — it is such a rich dynamic to the book. Anna has ‘red-headed, radical Welsh’ roots on her mother’s side and she only belatedly finds out, when she is 48 years-old and from his diaries her mother leaves behind after her death, that her absent father is from ‘Bamana’, which is also present in his 1969 diaries by its colonial label — ‘Diamond Coast’ or ‘tiny DC’. What drew you to choose that for the main character of Anna? 

I had met many people who had stories like Anna’s who had parents, or fathers especially, who had come over as students and had affairs with white women and then gone back to West Africa, or gone back to Africa. 

Sometimes they were in touch with these fathers but sometimes they weren’t and some of them had no idea who they were. Some of them had been connected only in their adulthood. So, yeah, I met a couple of people with stories like this, so it was the only thing for Anna to be, really. 

As part of your acknowledgements, you mention that the spark for this novel came from your “research on the West African Students’ Union” (WASU). Could you tell us a bit more about how these histories informed the fiction? 

The West African Student’s Union was a group based in Camden Town from 1925 to 1970. It was an important centre for discourses around Pan Africanism and African nationalism and Francis’s experiences in London are largely based on my WASU research.

I decided to use the fictional country of Bamana because I wanted to write about the experience of many post-colonial African states. Bamana is a composite of all these different nations which started off at independence with so much optimism but somehow lost their way. 

The chapter where Anna finally sees her father for the first time in Bamana is a crucial moment, as Anna unlocks this up-to-then unknown part of her identity, reckoning the man she feels she knows from the diaries to the man she sees in front of her. What was your process in writing that scene and were there any other ideas about that reunion that didn’t make it to the final copy? 

There is quite a bit of a build-up to it because obviously she is in England and she needs to decide to go, and she needs to sort how she is going to get there. I think I wrote that scene in one sitting and there was an element of ‘how will it unfold?’ but I just sort of went for it. 

It would have been difficult to write early on in the novel, so I had quite a sense of who Anna was as a character before she finally meets her father. It was a long time ago now, but I do remember getting to it for the first time and thinking ‘this will be momentous’. 

But at the same time, momentous meetings will always be an anti-climax because you are wanting to meet this person for 48 years. Whatever happened there would be this feeling of ‘okay that’s it, then; I have finally met this person that has been in my imagination for so long’. 

When Anna visits a British professor as part of her search for her father, she comes across Bessie Head on his bookshelf: 

There is no television in the room. When my tea grows cold, I walk to a shelf that touches the ceiling and read the titles. African books by African authors: One Man, One Machete, The Joys of Motherhood, God’s Bits of Wood

I stop at Bessie Head because the name sounds English. When Rain Clouds Gather. I read the Introduction… (pp. 83-84)

Later, you write a scene where, whilst with her father visiting his country home, Gbadolite, Anna is mistaken for a journalist and on that basis is taken to see the young girl who has been chained up and imprisoned for four days, accused of being a witch. This reminded me of Head’s short story ‘Witchcraft’ in The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales. Is Head a particular favourite or inspiration for you? 

I am not familiar with that short story, but I have read her and enjoy her a lot. I love When Rain Clouds Gather. That’s definitely up there with one of my favourite books. I like Bessie Head. 

I mentioned her and When Rain Clouds Gather in Sankofa because Bessie and Anna have similarities in their background. Bessie Head was also of mixed heritage. 

In a recent interview, Promising Young Woman film director/writer, Emerald Fennel, said that she had been asked incredibly insensitive questions by male journalists who wanted to know if she drew on personal experience for her film. In response to this she remarked: “women are allowed to be memorialists, they’re allowed to talk about themselves and their lives, they are allowed to notice things but not to imagine them. People don’t ask men who write thrillers if they have murdered anyone.” 

As a visual artist herself, Anna has to reckon with a version of this in Sankofa. As part of the opening of an exhibition of her paintings, she is invited to answer questions by the gallery owner, one of which includes:

“‘There are so few depictions of black bodies in Western art, so why are all your figures Caucasian? Especially as you’re painting as a black female artist.’” (p.265)

What is your response to this notion as a female author? 

Sankofa is very much imagined, so is Welcome to Lagos. I have never really gotten that people think it is autobiographical. Welcome to Lagos starts with two Nigerian male soldiers so nobody has ever asked me if I have been in the Nigerian army!

Certainly, in this context the first thing people talk about is not my gender but more my nationality and race. They talk more about me being Nigerian and being black than being a woman. For better or worse I have never felt that my gender is something that people actually engage with.

Sometimes I think that when you write books set outside of England, what journalists tend to focus on is if the book is set in Nigeria then you must know the answers to every political question about Nigeria. There are different assumptions made and different questions asked. The books I write are very imagined and quite far from my experience. 

Do you have a particular question that someone has asked you that comes to mind? 

I am interested in politics as well so there is quite a bit of politics, in Welcome to Lagos especially. But I guess for me it is less what is noticed than what is not noticed actually — people wanting to talk exclusively about the politics as opposed to the craft of the writing, or how you came up with it. 

It is only a narrow slice of your subject matter that people seem to be interested in rather than wider writing questions. The sentence by sentence level of what you are doing which all writers have to engage with before they engage with their political situation or whatever — that craft of elemental writing is sometimes ignored. 

That leads me to my next question very nicely: you mentioned earlier that the title for Sankofa came right at the end.  When you start writing a novel what is your creative process? Do you write the ending before the beginning? 

No, I definitely don’t write the end first! I genuinely don’t know where the story is going when I start. With Sankofa it was good because I knew that I wanted Anna to discover her father’s diaries, and that happens very quickly, in the first couple of pages. I also knew that I wanted her to meet him so that gave the first 100 pages a clear structure: she is going on a journey to discover how she is going to get to Bamana to meet her father. That gave it an easy pace and momentum. 

For me the problems began after she met her father — then what? It was written in a way that it was an anti-climax. I want everyone to have this feeling, including Anna, of ‘where do we go from here?’ You have been building this meeting up and now you have met him, now what? Often in life, whatever it is, things that you want or goals you have, when it happens it’s like ‘now what?’ Anna meets her father and the ‘now what?’ follows from there. 

When at the end of the novel Anna goes through the traditional initiation rite to become a woman and meet her ancestors, as her father’s other daughters have, she is asked to sing a song from when she was a young girl:

I faced Wuyo Ama.

‘At this point, usually the girls will sing a Fanti song from their childhood, but we must improvise. What song do you know from when you were a young girl?’

‘“Dancing Queen”. It was always on in the flat. She never danced to it.’

‘That’s a new one,’ she said. ‘Sing it.’

I began softly, growing louder with each line until I was belting it out, then she stopped me.

‘That’s okay, my daughter. We must return soon.’ (p. 286)

My question to you on the back of this is, are you an ABBA fan and, if so, is ‘Dancing Queen’ your favourite song of theirs? 

I do like ‘Dancing Queen’, but all the ABBA songs I know are from the musical Mamma Mia. I don’t think I sit around listening to ABBA but I like ‘Dancing Queen’. 

Onuzo_GoodSoil for SankofaThis is all the more interesting as we know music plays a big role in your life — we at AiW were there for 1991, your autobiographical show featuring a live band and a choir combining narrative, music, song and dance, at the Africa Utopia Festival in London in 2019– and have loved your book-writing playlists, such as this one for Welcome to Lagos. If you weren’t an author, what do you think you would be doing? 

I would be a singer as well; I am singing right now. I am doing more music. I have a single coming out with the book, “Good Soil”. I might also be a lecturer – I lectured for a little bit, a year at SOAS, but academia is a lot of admin and I didn’t have enough headspace for my creative work.

Do you have a pattern in terms of your writing process?

I used to write at night, but then you are out of sync with the world. Everyone is sleeping and you are awake; everyone is awake and you are sleeping. I just thought, this is not sustainable. I write in the daytime now and I made the conscious decision to not be precious about my writing and not to feel like I can’t write unless the sun is shining or if there are birds outside my window singing. You can build a lot of crutches for yourself and then it becomes very difficult to sit down and write until a certain amount of conditions are met. You need to stop writing at 3am and start writing at 3pm. 

Deadlines also help actually; there is nothing like a deadline to inspire you. I try to not put too much pressure on myself; a book is always a marathon. During the first lockdown, I remember people saying ‘right, I have to finish my novel by the end of this…’ You may do it but that’s not really a realistic goal, a certain number of words for a certain deadline. 

The thing is just to keep going and adding it little by little, not feeling like you have to write 80,000 words in a month – then if you write 20,000 all you can think is you haven’t written the other 60,000. A mixture of not losing momentum but also not putting too much pressure on yourself. 

Lastly, (and please forgive me – you have probably been asked this since you were 19!) but what advice would you give any aspiring authors who have yet to put pen to page? 

That’s it, put pen to page. There is no magic to it. I think with writing, you don’t need anybody; it’s one of those creatives. If you were a playwright, maybe you need actors to put on your play. For novels and poetry, it’s just you and the page. 

I would say that sometimes people are waiting for someone to give them permission and say, ‘now you are ready — go forth and write’. But, no, give yourself that permission, ‘I want to write so I am going to do it’. I think sometimes people think it won’t be very good the first time I try, but then for most people it isn’t. That’s the point; you try again and try again and try again.

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Chibundu OnuzoChibundu Onuzo was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Her life so far spans two military dictatorships, one internet revolution, two boarding schools, five grandmothers and a first book deal signed at nineteen. In 2018, she was awarded a PhD in History from King’s College London in 2018, and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as part of its “40 Under 40” initiative.

Chibundu’s first novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, was published by Faber in 2012 and was the winner of a Betty Trask Award, shorted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize, and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and Etisalat Literature Prize. Her second novel, Welcome to Lagos, was published by Faber in 2017 and shortlisted for the RSL Encore Award. Sankofa is her third novel.

She contributes regularly to the Guardian, has done a talk for Tedx and her autobiographical show 1991, premiered in a sell-out show at Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival in 2018. Her live action short film, ‘Dọlápọ̀ Is Fine’, directed by Ethosheia Hylton and written with Joan Iyiola in 2020, won the HBO Short Film Competition at the American Black Film Festival.

When not writing, Chibundu can be found playing the piano or singing.

Find her on Twitter and Instagram @chibunduonuzo.page-divider

zahra-bandayZahra Banday is a graduate of English Literature at SOAS, University of London. She works in Advertising, helping global clients find new and interesting ways to promote and enhance their brands. Literature, film and art are some of her great loves.

Zahra’s review of Sankofa that accompanies this Q&A can be found here – “Flying Forward With Your Head Facing Back”.

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Hardcover, eBook and downloadable audiobook copies of Sankofa can be ordered here.



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